By Jareen Imam
(CNN) — Women who served as pilots during World War II finally can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, thanks to bipartisan efforts.
President Barack Obama signed a bill into law allowing the ashes of woman who flew in the Women Airforce Service Pilots program (WASP) to be laid to rest at the military cemetery.
For Tiffany Miller, who launched an online petition last year to have her grandmother Danforth Harmon’s ashes allowed into Arlington, the recent news has been overwhelming.
“It was her last wish to be in Arlington. We haven’t been able to hold a funeral for her because we wanted to honor that wish,” the 37-year-old told CNN.
Harmon’s grandmother was fresh out of college when she joined the WASP program in 1944, flying with male pilots who needed to go through instrument training. The 22-year-old was in the program for less than a year before it was dismantled, but the experience had a lasting impact, Miller said.
These original fly girls flew countless U.S. Army Air Forces planes for noncombat missions during the war in order to free up their male counterparts for combat. Between 1942 and 1944, they flew more than 60 million miles in bombers, transports and trainer aircraft.
In 1977, the female pilots were granted veteran status, but it wasn’t until 2002 that they were able to be buried at Arlington, which falls under Army regulations, unlike cemeteries operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2015, then-Army Secretary John McHugh revoked that right after lawyers determined that those in the WASP program, listed as “active duty designees,” did not meet Army eligibility rules, meaning their ashes could not be placed in an above-ground structure at Arlington, according to a memo from McHugh that the Miller family obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Arlington officials said although the service of those in WASP was commendable, it did not “reach the level of Active Duty service required” to be buried there. Space is limited, and based on current demands the cemetery will run out of room in 20 years, according to a January 2016 cemetery statement.
Obama changed the decision after signing in the new legislation on Friday.
“The Women Airforce Service Pilots courageously answered their country’s call in a time of need while blazing a trail for the brave women who have given and continue to give so much in service to this nation since,” Obama said. “Every American should be grateful for their service, and I am honored to sign this bill to finally give them some of the hard-earned recognition they deserve.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the longest-serving woman in the history of Congress, introduced the legislation at the beginning of the year. The measure gave those who served as WASP the option of being buried at Arlington.
“Today we have righted a terrible wrong so Women Airforce Service Pilots can once and for all be laid to rest alongside our nation’s patriots at Arlington National Cemetery,” Mikulski said in a statement. “If they were good enough to fly for our country, risk their lives and earn the Congressional Gold Medal, they should be good enough for Arlington.”
More than 1,000 women were a part of the WASP program; 38 of those pilots lost their lives while serving their country.